Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Cars, culture and how the General lost touch


My deep, abiding passion sits at the confluence of cars and culture.

For a while I thought I wanted to be the guy drawing cars but I soon came to realise I was more interested in the effect that cars have on people. The same goes for the flip-side: as the needs and wants of a culture change, people effect change on cars. It’s an engrossing cycle of cultural cause and effect.

So it was that I started my working life as a design strategist for the car industry. Like a pig in muck, I delight in observing the whys and hows of the choices people make when they buy a car. Connecting the emotional dots between the prospective customer’s personal needs, surface composition or the “face” of a brand and the eventual purchasing decision is a fascinating experience.

The most important lesson I’ve learnt, however, is that in my work my personal view counts for naught.

I’ve driven 400 Bhp bahnstormers that have left me stone cold and angry with the world (BMW 750i, Mercedes CL), been totally enchanted by an oddball French coupe that left others infuriated with it’s dynamic mediocrity (Renault Laguna) and I adore Volvo 200s and Citroen CXs. Clearly my automotive passions fall outside the mainstream.

Personally, I am but one consumer among millions (and one that’s unlikely to ever spend money on a new car). Professionally, however, it’s my job to elicit the passions, desires and fears both from individual customers and the cultural world they inhabit. I then filter this cocktail into a form that helps designer and eventual owner find a happy medium, that elusive product that sets synapses (and wallets) alight.

Grant McCracken has published a fascinating piece examining Bob Lutz’s role in GMs downfall. He argues that it was the former Car Czar’s imposition of his personal views on what a car should be, rather than understanding American culture, that lead to a yawning disconnect between American consumers and GM.

Of Lutz’s single-mindedness, McCraken has this to say:

“In point of fact, he knew relatively little about our culture. What Lutz knew was cars, and what he liked about cars, by all accounts, was speed….He loved muscles cars because they went fast. Lutz was worse than average as a river captain. I think it’s fairly safe to say that Lutz did not ever grasp the muscle car revival (the one portrayed by Hollywood in XXX, The Fast and the Furious, and now Fast and Furious). He must have gloried in the power and the glory and all that sound. Just as surely, he must have been mystified by fact that it was being produced in some case [sic] by tiny, winged Hondas.”

McCracken suggests that Lutz, to disastrous effect, let his personal emotions and story get in the way of understanding those of of GM customers. Lest we forget, this is the man that in the midst of the post-Inconvenient Truth environmental zeitgeist, declared global warming “…a total crock of shit.”.

Head over to McCracken’s blog to read the full piece, including an idea (one that I heartily support) about how the disconnect could have been avoided and why GM’s future, no matter what the courts have in store, looks bleak even after Maximum Bob’s departure.

Post script: My choice for Detroit Chief Cultural Officer? Freeman Thomas.

[Source: Grant McCracken, Chief Culture Officer: fixing Detroit now, 2009. Glenn Hunter, GM’s Lutz On Hybrids, Global Warming And Cars As Art, 2008] [Image: Andrew Philip Artois Smith]

Category: Branding, Car, Car Culture, Design, Design Strategy

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  1. Ben Kraal says:

    So (per McCracken’s blog) why were/are the boomers so into German luxury cars (I knew a few people who jumped to Alfas, too).

  2. drewpasmith says:

    Thanks for the comment Ben!

    This is indeed a good question and given that McCracken’s referring to the American market, that’s probably something he’s better at answering.

    Let me see what I can do for you.

  3. Kudos on another great post.

    Do you feel GM’s fortunes would have been improved if they had been sans Lutz fromt he beginning?

    Not to defend him, but I think he did a decent job of improving the GM portfolio….as well as a car guy in his late 70’s could I suppose. Perhaps if he had surrounded himself with a team of fellow car guys, a team of varying age/cultural demographic, the fruits of the labor might have been positioned a little better on the tree:

    -A lighter/cheaper Soltice that would attract people other than the current over 50 baseball cap wearing crowd.
    -An quirky HHR that doesn’t rely on 50 year old design elements.
    -etc, etc….


  4. drewpasmith says:

    Hi Paul,

    Great to hear from you, I really value the feedback and the questions I get here.

    I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Lutz and his career at GM or, indeed, at Ford, BMW, Opel and Chrysler but a brief review of products launched under his tenure do share some defining characteristics.

    At Ford he was responsible for the development of the Sierra and Explorer, which on the surface of it, were successful products. Scratch a little deeper though and history isn’t so kind.

    The Sierra was launched to general ridicule and alarm in 1983 as a result of its polarising styling and underdeveloped aerodynamics. It was only after a substantial facelift in ’87 that a now normalised Sierra began to make sense in the European and UK markets. The other Sierra related disaster, which has Lutz’ name all over it, was the introduction of the the car to the US market as the Merkur XR4Ti. Poor strategy meant that the car was a flop, the created-from-scratch Merkur brand sank without a trace and Lutz was soon on his way to Chrysler.

    The Explorer succeeded (Firestone saga notwithstanding) largely because Ford didn’t develop it. Mazda Did. It was a Japanese product in American drag.

    At Chrysler Lutz managed to get the sex quotient right with the Viper and Prowler but both cars were let down by a seriously slap-dash approach to quality and engineering. The V10 in the Viper is, despite change to aluminium casting, a truck engine. So were many of the suspension components of the series 1 car. Even in 1992, this simply isn’t the way to build a supercar! The Neon, frustratingly, went from being a really innovative take on the small American car to a sad-sack with no hope of competing against high-quality Asian rivals.

    The litany of failures at GM continued, as well we know. From Solstice to SSR to HHR and even the Camaro, all these products were/are all mouth and no trousers. It’s simply not enough for a product to visually espouse the values of nostalgia and freedom of choice and motoring liberty.

    The American consumer (and I’m way out of my depth here being an Australian in Europe, but I’ll try…) has come a long way from the heady days when what a car was was writ large in its styling and what was underneath didn’t matter as long as it was fast and lasted until the next model came out 2 years later. Consumers now seek better value for money and a car now needs to satisfy on more rational levels.

    It would seem, upon reflection, that Lutz excelled in selling visions of cars that he thought America would appreciate on an emotional level without understanding that after decades of blindly accepting often good looking, but ultimately crap products, the American public came to expect more. And it was the Asian manufacturers that provided it at a mass market level.

    It’s telling that at the launch of the Dodge Neon in 1994 Lutz announced that “There’s an old saying in Detroit: ‘Good, fast, or cheap. Pick any two.’ We refuse to accept that.”.

    Maximum Bob refused at his peril.

  5. @potatowedge says:

    Hey Drew,

    First off, it is always refreshing to engage with people who are coming from a similar perspective. I am currently in transportation design at DAAP in Cincinnati, and while it is tons of fun and I think I’m reasonable good at it, the single-track perspective within the studio is a source of daily torment. Not that there is anything wrong with car guys loving cars, drawing cars and building cars…in fact most of the time I am one of them.

    That said, the key to this ongoing problem (not just with GM, but almost evverryoonne) is going to to be about dialogue. Dialogue between, strategists, designers and consumers to fundamentally upset current perspectives on what a “car” should be. Everyone has something to contribute and it is super important that leadership is totally 100% interested in listening to their customers instead of dictating to them. What is interesting to me, is how we can open this dialogue.


  6. drewpasmith says:

    Hey Rob,

    Thanks so much for saying hello! It’s great to be in touch.

    Your frame of mind is so similar to mine it’s scary. I started drawing cars at the age of six, started taking them apart (and, usually, putting them back) together as a 9 year old and… well, you get the idea. Petrol runs through every capillary in my cardiovascular system. Naturally, however, as I grow as a person and become more aware of my role as a designer and my place in the world as a citizen, this gives rise to some personal conflict.

    I think your point about dialogue is key, and it’s something that I covered in my piece for the Re*Move blog. The pace of change has quickened to such an extent that I have the feeling that the old monoliths of the automotive world aren’t able to respond quick enough on their own. I hope to see a grass-roots effort to re-connect manufacturers with communities and drivers so that the indutry can start answering real “needs”, not continuing to create and market “wants”.

    As for how we can open up this dialogue? Good question! I think one of the benefits of social media and the internet in general is that information can now be shared in a truly democratic way (well, outside of China at least…). The trick will be for us change makers to break through an incredibly noisy state and get the message out there if we’re to have any hope of getting useful information back.

  7. Paul Farquharson says:

    Hi Drew,
    Many thanks for the history lesson! Looking forward to further posts…


  8. Alexander says:

    Wow, great post.

    “I’ve driven 400 Bhp bahnstormers that have left me stone cold and angry with the world (BMW 750i, Mercedes CL), been totally enchanted by an oddball French coupe that left others infuriated with it’s dynamic mediocrity (Renault Laguna) and I adore Volvo 200s and Citroen CXs. Clearly my automotive passions fall outside the mainstream.”

    It’s fantastic to find someone who thinks alike. Congrats on the blog!

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